Duy Hoa Tran, a retired Vietnamese schoolteacher, arrived in Los Angeles in February 2020 to visit his daughter and 2-month-old grandson. Two weeks later, the door closed behind him. To prevent the spread of covid-19, Vietnam shut its borders. No commercial flights would be allowed into the country for the next 18 months.
Tran's daughter, An Tran, who has a doctorate in business administration and teaches marketing at the University of La Verne in California, did what she thought was necessary to ensure medical coverage for her then-65-year-old father during the pandemic. But the only option for a visitor on a tourist visa was travel insurance. In early March 2020, An Tran found and purchased a policy, for about $350 a month, from a company called Seven Corners.
She might as well not have bothered.
The elder Tran had been staying at An's home in Diamond Bar, California, about a year when he told his daughter he was having trouble seeing out of his right eye. A visit to an ophthalmologist produced a solemn verdict: Tran had severe glaucoma and would quickly go blind unless he got surgery.
Seven Corners gave written preapproval for the procedures recommended by Dr. Brian Chen. To be safe, An Tran called the insurer "many times" to confirm it would cover the expense, but no one she spoke with would give her a definitive answer, she said. Chen, however, assured An that insurance companies typically covered the treatment, which was pretty routine.
On April 19, Tran underwent the first of three eye surgeries to resolve the glaucoma. The surgeries — the last was on July 19 — were successful. And then on Aug. 5, Seven Corners sent An Tran a denial of service letter.
The company's policy excluded coverage for any "preexisting condition," by which it meant any condition "whether or not previously manifested, symptomatic, known, diagnosed, treated or disclosed," the letter said.
An Tran and her father were on the hook for nearly $38,000 in medical bills, although Seven Corners had preauthorized the surgery and she had paid around $6,000 for the insurance over the previous year and a half.
As for the bill, "my dad obviously can't pay it," Tran said. His $260 monthly pension from the Vietnamese government isn't enough even for him to live on in Vietnam, she said.
The surgical procedures Duy Hoa Tran received are quite routine in the United States, said Dr. Davinder Grover, an ophthalmologist in the Dallas area and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Medicare would generally pay about a quarter of the $37,896.83 Tran was billed for the surgeries, Grover said. If Tran's daughter had known beforehand that insurance wouldn't cover the procedures, the physician's practice might have been willing to charge something like $12,000, he said.
The policy An Tran purchased had no deductible and offered coverage of up to $100,000 in medical bills, including covid care. But travel insurance generally covers only emergency or urgent medical expenses, according to the California state insurance commission, which regulates policies in the state.
Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for Squaremouth, which aggregates various companies' travel insurance plans — including some from Seven Corners — and offers them through its website, said the policy language was not unusual for travel insurance. She noted the policy's stipulation that it covered some acute conditions only if the patient sought treatment within 24 hours of the initial symptoms.
Moncrief said the fact that Tran did not seek treatment immediately may be the reason his surgeries weren't covered. (Seven Corners refused all comment on the case.) She acknowledged it was hardly surprising he hadn't dashed to the doctor at the first sign of discomfort: "I don't know that I would have done that either, if I just had blurry vision."
As for Seven Corners' refusal to pay despite precertification, this is not uncommon, she said. By precertifying, the insurer verifies that a procedure is a covered benefit but doesn't guarantee the insurer will cover it for that particular patient.
Travel insurance typically offers little protection for any health problem linked to a preexisting condition, regardless of whether that condition has ever been diagnosed, says Susan Yates, general manager in the U.S. for Falck Global Assistance, an international insurer.
"For visitors to the U.S., especially those who are not permanent residents or citizens, it can be difficult to obtain health insurance," she said. The Affordable Care Act doesn't cover tourists, though some resident noncitizens can buy coverage.
"It's usually better for a visitor to buy travel insurance from their country of origin, but in some countries (Vietnam being one), the insurance market is not developed," Yates wrote in an email.
Tran had tried unsuccessfully for months to fly home to his town near Ho Chi Minh City, where his wife lives with another grandchild. On 14 occasions, An bought him tickets on regular commercial flights that were subsequently canceled. He was also unable to get a seat on charter flights arranged by the Vietnamese government; those tickets generally were available only through third parties charging up to $10,000.
The eye surgeon, Chen, offered to discuss the case with KHN, but his medical group's counsel said it had a policy against discussing insurance issues with reporters, even with the patient's consent.
After KHN approached him to discuss the issue, Chen told An Tran that he was waiving his $8,144 fee for the surgeries. The Acuity Eye Group, where he practices, would not immediately confirm Chen's offer, but told An Tran they were seeking approvals to waive his fee and all other charges as well.
On Sept. 15, Duy Hoa Tran finally managed to get on a charter flight back to Vietnam. He's happy to be home, An Tran said.
Under California's filial responsibility laws, she could be liable for his remaining bills.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.